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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

October 13, 2009

Amber or Green Tea - Part One

The title of this column may seem a bit obscure, particularly as I said last time I was going to talk about the English translations of Genji Monogatari, but bear with me, all will become clear shortly.

As I mentioned in my last column, there are five English translations of Genji, three complete, and two partial. Here are the translators’ names and the dates of publication:

• Suematsu Kenchō (1882)
• Arthur Waley (1925)
• Edward Seidensticker (1976)
• Helen McCullough (1994)
• Royall Tyler (2001)

As you can see, the translations are widely separated in time and appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, in the early and latter parts of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, meaning that the translators’ purposes in translating, their readers, and the translations’ reception were bound to be different. This also means that each of them is a very different work, and will give you a very different idea of Genji depending upon which one you read now. I’m going to deal with the first two translations this week, and will discuss the others later.

Suematsu’s translation is incomplete, covering only the first seventeen ‘chapters’ of the original. It starts as follows:

The Chamber of Kiri[i]

In the reign of a certain Emperor, whose name is unknown to us, there was, among the Niogo and Kôyi[ii] of the Imperial Court, one who, though she was not of high birth, enjoyed the full tide of Royal favour. Hence her superiors, each one of whom had always been thinking—“I shall be the one,” gazed upon her disdainfully with malignant eyes, and her equals and inferiors were more indignant still.

[i] The beautiful tree, called Kiri, has been named Paulownia Imperialia, by botanists.
[ii] Official titles held by Court ladies. (Suematsu Kenchō, 1974, 19)

One could take issue with the translation of the title, the uninformative footnotes, and, now, the somewhat old-fashioned phrasing (‘gazed upon her disdainfully with malignant eyes’), but overall there if much to commend here: it is a faithful reflection of the original’s content, and goes some way to replicating its rhythm and style.

In his introduction Suematsu explicitly states his purpose in translating:

[It] is not so much to amuse my readers as to present them with a study of human nature, and to give them information on the history of the social and political condition of my native country nearly a thousand years ago. They will then be able to compare it with the condition of mediaeval and modern Europe. (Suematsu Kenchō, 1974, 17) 

Suematsu was a diplomat despatched to Britain by the Meiji government, and his translation was a way to emphasise that Japan, far from being a barbaric, peripheral nation, had equalled, and even exceeded, the cultural developments of the western powers. This was in keeping with the Japanese government’s major foreign policy aim of securing a revision to the ‘unequal treaties’ signed by the Tokugawa shogunate. It was a translation for a political purpose, in other words. The contemporary critical reception of the translation, however, was patronising, to say the least:

The story, if story it may be called, when there is not a vestige or anything like a plot, is exceedingly tedious…The best things in the book are the scraps of verse, which are sometimes really pretty. (The Spectator 1882)

Despite this seemingly negative reception, however, the translation was reprinted in 1898, at which time the following review appeared:

…the text carries with it innumerable verses, which are to us utterly meaningless…we now understand the wonderful art of Japan, but perhaps it will be never given to us to appreciate her fiction. (The New York Times 1898)

At this time the very existence of Japanese literature was an object of curiosity, and, it was never considered that it could be in any way equal to the literary achievements of Europe, or, not to put too fine a point on it, English. This should come as no surprise: Britain, in particular, was still in the grip of the self-confident Victorian assumption of its own superiority, and any work of world literature, not just those from Japan, was likely to be regarded in the same way. So, you could say that Suematsu’s translation was, and to some extent still is, a curiosity and not worth a great deal of attention.

The first complete translation of Genji, by Arthur Waley, and published in six volumes between 1925-32, however, was a different matter. It was widely read, and highly praised by the British literary establishment. On the cover of the edition which I own, in an excerpted quotation from the New York Times, it is described as being ‘as robust as “Tom Jones,” as discerning as “Don Quixote,” as untrammeled as “The Arabian Nights”’, clearly placing it in the company of other, more familiar, major works of English, European and world literature.

Waley begins his Genji like this:


At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them.

[i] This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki, still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors, writes in a manner which is a blend of the Court chronicle with the conventional fairy-tale. (Waley, 1935, 7)

Setting aside the footnote – I think the last thing one would do nowadays when translating a literary work is insult one’s author on the very first page - you can see immediately, I hope, that this is a more literary version than the previous one. A reader is caught at once by the initial, long, sentence and swept away by its rhythm. This is easily done as Waley has decided, for example, to translate the terms nyōgo (女御) and kōi (更衣), which Suematsu simply transcribed, even if the translations themselves are somewhat opaque. He has, though, left the chapter title untranslated, and unexplained. How much you enjoy it, I suppose, depends on whether you like this relatively flowery style (an American student of mine once remarked that this could only ever have been written by an Englishman), but I have to confess to finding it enchanting, and I am not the only one: for example, writing in Vogue in 1925, Virginia Woolf made these effusive comments:

While the Aelfrics and the Aelfreds croaked and coughed in England, this court lady...was sitting down in her silk dress and trousers with pictures before her and the sound of poetry in her ears, with flowers in her garden and nightingales in the trees, with all day to talk in and all night to dance in-she was sitting down about the year 1000 to tell the story of the life and adventures of Prince Genji. (Woolf, 1966, 265)

With positive reviews such as this to drive it, Waley’s translation was read by many people and evaluated highly. Again, this is, perhaps, unsurprising, given when it appeared: in the early 1920s the First World War remained an unhealed wound upon the psyche of the British people, many of whom could perceive little hope for a better life in the immediate future. It seems unsurprising, therefore, that they should seize on Genji as offering an escape into a romantic and more civilised world, and that it should exercise a strong influence on the British literary establishment, with Aldous Huxley relating in later years that the Tale of Genji was ‘the essence of all tragedy, refined to a couple of tablespoonfuls of amber coloured tea in a porcelain cup no bigger than a magnolia flower’ (Huxley 1939: 156).

This brings us to the title of the column and the crux of the matter: it’s a fact that Japanese tea is, of course, green, and amber tea can’t help but seem foreign, or rather, un-Japanese (the Japanese word for Indian tea is kōcha 紅茶which literally translates as ‘scarlet tea’, as you probably know already). Although Huxley may not have meant it this way, Waley’s translation departs in both letter and spirit from the Japanese original in order to make the resultant English text more palatable to the English reader. The technical term for this in Translation Studies is domestication, and there’s no doubt that Waley’s Genji is thoroughly domesticated, with European furniture and other accoutrements inserted, changes in characterisation and motivation, and substantial deletions, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, or influential.

Next week, I’ll talk about the more recent translations – those which are more akin to green tea.


Mccullough, Helen (1994), Genji and Heike Selections from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Heike Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Seidensticker, Edward G. (1981), The Tale of Genji Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Suematsu Kenchō (1974), Genji Monogatari Tokyo, Tuttle.
Tyler, Royall (2001), The Tale of Genji Harmondsworth, Viking.
Waley, Arthur (1935), The Tale of Genji Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Woolf, Virginia (1966), "The Tale of Genji", 264-268, in Virginia Woolf (Ed.) Collected Essays London, Hogarth Press.

« Does the Shining Prince yet shine? | Main | Amber or Green Tea - Part Two »


I guess it sounds old-fashioned, but I quite like the phrase "gazed upon her disdainfully with malignant eyes."

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